In “The Things They Carried,” physical items such as weighted jackets, grenade launchers, and M-60s sit atop Vietnam soldiers’ shoulders to equal a weight difficult for most to imagine. This tangible weight however hardly compares to the emotional baggage such as grief, terror, longing, confusion, and guilt that the soldiers bear. Tim O’Brien actively uses symbolism to represent the pressure that burdens these men throughout the short story. Jimmy Cross enters the war on a whim because of his high-school friends’ decision to enlist, and he quickly becomes a Lieutenant at the young age of twenty-four.
From the beginning, O’Brien marks the letters and pictures as a significant symbol that represents Martha and Jimmy’s emotional status. Lieutenant Cross explained how the letters allow him to “spend the last hour of light pretending,” most likely that he remained home, and even went as far to explain how he licked the envelope flaps, “knowing her tongue had been there.” With this insight into the young Lieutenants’ life, it’s obvious that Martha and everything that connects to her seems to symbolize home and normalcy and serves as an escape for Jimmy Cross as he struggles through the horrors associated with the war. As the story progresses, Jimmy Cross also receives a “smooth, milky white pebble with flecks of orange and violet that Martha found while walking on the Jersey Shore.” The pebble was not only a symbol of importance to Cross as he dealt with the horrible experience of war, but as the material weight, he carried due to the death of one of his comrades.
Throughout the story, Cross finds himself thinking about Martha so often it becomes a daily issue, and the pebble only furthers the distraction. One day while daydreaming that he “was buried with Martha under the white sand at the Jersey shore,” Ted Lavender was shot and killed, and Lt. Cross blames himself. After the incident Cross realizes that his infatuation with Martha truly is one-sided and if it continues more people may get hurt. After this realization, he goes to (quote the burning picture scene) to rid himself of Martha. At this moment, Jimmy begins to transform as he makes the decision to burn the pictures and letters sent from Martha. Before enlisting leading in war seemed to rank low on Jimmy Cross’s importance scale compared to the love he held for Martha. When Cross burns the letters he makes a statement of determination proving that he strives to put romantic ideas behind him and gain leadership qualities while simultaneously convincing himself that his mind now lacks fantasies about Martha. O’Brien in turn uses the burning of Martha’s things to symbolically signify a turning point in Cross’ development and show the readers his change of heart.
Cross justified his love for Martha as a way to create a “safe place” inside his mind so he obtained mental escape from the war when necessary. He continues to grow by ridding himself of the desire for normalcy, and by adopting a rigorous attitude to protect those looking to him for leadership. Aside from abandoning the letters and pictures, Jimmy Cross also abandons his innocence. He wants to concentrate on the responsibilities of leading his men, for ‘he was now determined to perform his duties firmly and without negligence.’ The new lieutenant Cross would dispose of the good luck pebble, accept the blame for Lavender’s death, and leave no room for argument.
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